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The mysterious case of Lauren Spierer has bewildered detectives in the charming college town of Bloomington, Ind., since June 2011, when the Indiana University sophomore disappeared after a night of partying. Despite sustained national media attention and a steady flow of tips — hundreds each year since Spierer went missing — the investigation has yet to result in a single arrest or any evidence of her fate.
Nearly four years later, the death of another IU student and the interest of a former FBI investigator turned TV crime show host are breathing new life into the cold case.
On April 24, the body of IU student Hannah Wilson was discovered in a rural area about 20 miles from campus, just hours after friends had reported her missing. A cellphone left on the ground near Wilson’s body led Indiana State Police to Daniel Messel, a 49-year-old who’d been in and out of jail a number of times over the past 20 years for violent crimes, many involving female victims. Investigators tracked down Messel at the home he shares in Bloomington with his stepfather, carrying a garbage bag filled with clothes. Clumps of hair and blood were inside his car, according to police, and his forearms were reportedly covered in scratch marks.
Messel was arrested and charged with Wilson’s murder; he has pleaded not guilty. Immediately, speculation began of a link to Spierer’s case, fueled by the fact that Wilson was last seen getting into a taxi outside the same Bloomington bar where Spierer had been drinking in the early morning hours before she disappeared. Inundated with questions from both the media and the general public, the Bloomington Police Department promptly released a statement confirming that “Messel’s arrest has provided BPD detectives with an avenue of investigation into Lauren Spierer’s disappearance that will be diligently pursued and, in fact, that investigation has already begun.”
When asked recently for an update on the investigation, BPD Capt. Joe Qualters referred Yahoo News to that same press release.
“There is no pre-determined timeline for how long this inquiry might take and it is unknown at this time when it might be completed,” the statement reads. “BPD has a long standing position of not providing specific details about the ongoing Spierer investigation and that position will also be maintained regarding this aspect of the investigation.”
The disappearance of Lauren Spierer
From the beginning, the Lauren Spierer story had all the makings of a made-for-TV mystery: her distraught, determined parents making public pleas for information; the cast of male friends who were with her the night she disappeared, quickly lawyering up when they became persons of interest; and, of course, Lauren herself, a diminutive, blue-eyed blonde from New York’s wealthy Westchester County, practically embodied the “Missing White Woman” stereotype.
Posters bearing Spierer’s smiling face under the word “Missing” in bold red letters were plastered across the IU campus and quickly attracted national attention. Her case was featured on “America’s Most Wanted,” and just days after her disappearance, Stephen Colbert urged his millions of Twitter followers to help find Spierer. Hundreds of volunteers — including HLN’s Nancy Grace and author Nicholas Sparks — descended upon Bloomington to help in the search.
In the immediate aftermath, witness statements and security footage provided police with enough material to compile a timeline and map of Spierer’s late night out on the town before her predawn disappearance.
According to the police timeline, Spierer and her friend David Rohn, also a student, left Smallwood Plaza, the off-campus high-rise where she lived, at about 12:30 a.m. They went down the street to the apartment of another student named Jay Rosenbaum, where Spierer reportedly met up with Corey Rossman, who also lived in Rosenbaum’s building, and the two of them continued on to Kilroy’s Sports Bar, a quintessential college bar and a favorite among IU students from the Northeast.
After that the details become blurred. Leaving her shoes and phone behind at the bar, Spierer returned with Rossman to her apartment building, where Rossman reportedly got into an altercation with someone who punched him in the face. Spierer accompanied her friend back to his apartment and then headed down the hall to Rosenbaum’s. Rosenbaum confirmed to investigators that Spierer was at his apartment and that despite his efforts to convince her to stay, she left at about 4:15 a.m., making him the last known person to see her alive.
Hours later, Spierer’s boyfriend, Jesse Wolff, who had been absent from the previous night’s revelry, filed a missing persons report after texting Spierer and receiving a response from an employee at Kilroy’s Sports Bar.
Witnesses described Spierer as inebriated, an observation corroborated by video footage that showed her stumbling barefoot down the hallway of her apartment building. But reports that she had used other drugs that night, including cocaine and the prescription anxiety medication Klonopin, fueled speculation that the 90-pound Spierer, who suffered from a heart condition, had died of a drug overdose and that whomever she was with had disposed of her body.
At the time, Capt. Qualters acknowledged that investigators would be exploring information they’d received that fed that theory, but none of the young men who saw Spierer in her final hours were ever arrested. More than two months after Spierer went missing, Indiana University Police officers and FBI agents joined the Bloomington Police Department in a nine-day search of the nearby landfill, which didn’t produce a single piece of evidence amid more than 4,100 tons of trash.
As the investigation continued over the next few years, Bloomington detectives ruled out other leads, including a suspicious white truck about which they’d received more than 500 tips, and a middle-aged man who told police officers that he’d met Lauren Spierer and was in Bloomington “to help search” for her when he was arrested in 2012, staking out Kilroy’s Sports Bar from a nearby parking garage with two handguns and a loaded shotgun. In August 2012, a county coroner dashed tepid hopes that a skull discovered along the banks of a southern Indiana river might have belonged to Spierer.
Spierer’s parents, Rob and Charlene, who declined a request for comment on this story, have managed to keep their daughter’s case in the public eye, posting updates and soliciting tips at their website Findlauren.com, with the Twitter handle @NewsOnLaurenS, and on their official Facebook page, which still has 85,000 followers. In interviews on “Today” and with Katie Couric and the Indianapolis Star, the Spierers asserted that Lauren was not randomly abducted and that the friends who last saw her know more than they’re willing to admit.
In May 2013, Rossman, in his first public statement since he was designated a “person of interest” in the case, accused Spierer’s parents of harassment. (Rossman, Rosenbaum, Rohn, and Wolff were among 10 persons of interest the police named in the wake of Spierer’s disappearance.)
Rossman, the friend got who punched — which, his lawyer said, rendered him incapable of remembering the night’s events — told Westchester County’s Journal News that he’d been fully cooperative with Bloomington Police. He denied accusations from Charlene and Robert Spierer that he and the other young men who last saw Lauren were withholding relevant information.
“It’s inappropriate the way they’re harassing people that are also victims in this case,” Rossman said of Spierer’s parents, who had been publicly calling on him and the others to take police-administered polygraph tests. “We’ve done nothing wrong. If we’d done something wrong, we would have been arrested already. All they’re doing is hurting my career.”
More than a year later, in October 2014, a federal judge dismissed a negligence lawsuit the Spierers had filed against Rossman and Rosenbaum. The suit alleged that by providing Lauren with alcohol when she was already drunk and then allowing her to walk home alone “in an intoxicated and disoriented state...in an area known for criminal acts,” the young men had “contributed to her disappearance, and presumed injuries and death.”
“Disappointment does not mean defeat,” Charlene and Rob posted on the Official Lauren Spierer Updates Facebook page after the ruling. “We remain dedicated to finding the answers behind Lauren’s disappearance and having justice served.”
Weeks before the news of Hannah Wilson’s murder, the Spierers gained a new ally in their search for answers.
ABC News announced the launch of “Solve It,” an investigative series in which former FBI agent Brad Garrett sets out to solve compelling cold cases by soliciting tips via social media. The show’s first case: the disappearance of Lauren Spierer.
“No matter how old the case, there’s always some information out there,” Garrett told Yahoo News. “People have decided they’re now willing to talk, their life circumstances have changed, they’re mad at somebody who told them something four years ago.”
One reason Garrett said he chose to start with Spierer’s case is that most of the people likely to possess valuable information are in Lauren’s age group, the perfect demographic to target with social media.
“The people who know what happened her last day are all around her age,” Garrett said. “Whoever she ended up with when she was last seen, they are the ones who can probably answer all or most of my questions.”
He said he’s already gotten more than 40 leads, about a handful of which “hold great potential.”
At this point, Garrett is just collecting information, but it’s likely that he will end up following one of his leads to Indiana.
“The whole idea is to solve the case for Lauren’s family and tell a story while doing it,” Garrett said, noting that he’s notified Spierer’s parents about the investigation but has not heard from them.
About Messel, the suspect in the Hannah Wilson case, Garrett said he’s open to exploring a possible connection, but cautioned, “One thing you cannot do whether you are in law enforcement or an investigative reporter is go with what you think is the obvious.”
He added that Messel “was so incredibly sloppy from an evidence standpoint,” referring to the cellphone left behind where Wilson’s body was found. “Was he less sloppy if he was involved in Lauren? Or was he lucky?”
Garrett, who said he doesn’t fault the police, thinks that the attention he can bring to this and other cases can uncover leads in cold cases that might not have come to light otherwise. “I think that this case, along with many, many others, is solvable with enough persistence and enough awareness from the community around them,” he said. No air date has been announced for the episode.